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Undertale: The Case for Heart


I will be discussing minor spoilers about this game in the blog below. I would rather you skip reading it then ruin the experience. Please, play this game. If you have played it, discuss with me.

This weekend, I bought a game called Undertale. I did so on a whim after someone posted on Reddit with a gif of the game. It had this quasi-horror/somehow-adorable vibe, which sounded like something I'd be incredibly interested in. (I have a history with games like Binding of Isaac that pull off this combo style well) When I actually loaded up the game, I did indeed get my share of strange eerieness and adorable atmosphere.

But I got more. So much more.

What was to follow is, without hyperbole, the most surprising, enjoyable, whimscal experience I've had with a video game within the last five years. 

You take on the role of a young, gender neutral child who has become lost in a world of monsters. You proceed to explore this world. The kicker to the whole thing is that, throughout your myriad foes (whose design is brilliantly creative) you will encounter, you have to defeat exactly none of them. Zero. You do not have to kill a single thing, if you don't want to. Obviously, you can fight things if you want, and it is in fact the only way to raise your Lv, but the game makes it abundantly clear that you don't have to. Every single fight has some way of being worked around, and it goes from strange bullet-hell RPG to something where you are solving a small puzzle every fight, trying to figure out how to placate the foes in front of you. 

Why bother though, right? It's just another moral choice system like any other game to have one in last few years (Bioshock, Mass Effect, etc). Click the button to be good guy or bad guy. There's more to it than that, though. The game is wonderfully deep, and it has a tendency to remember. The people you fight are real, breathing characters in the story. You can interact with almost all of them, at some point or another. When you destroy a monster instead of working out the problem, they're taken from you, and anything they could have offered goes with them. Sure, you can be as violent as you please, but the effects are tangible from your behavior, and like I said, the game remembers. 

Perhaps you decide to take some less than kind actions in the game, and it gives you a little bit of guilt about it. You decide to restart your story, and try again.

And then game calls you out on it. It will drag your shame into the light and show it to you. It is important to note, however, that the game isn't doing this to say one thing is absolutely right and one is absolutely wrong.

It's trying to tell a story. Your story. And your story doesn't end because you decided you were done being a dick. You're still you, and you're still playing the game. This sort of self-aware, almost Stanley-Parable levels of fourth-wall understanding are a huge driving force in the game. Two characters, sans and Papyrus (sans not capitalized deliberately) both speak in the fonts of their namesake. An NPC has a fishing line in the water hoping to reel in a hot catch. A character warns you that the upcoming puzzle is too hard, and being very matronly, guides you through it. This is just the tip of the iceberg that is Undertale, however.

Things EVERYWHERE are clickable. Characters have dialog that's hidden away all over the world. The game rewards you for being clever and playing intuitively. All of this leads up to what makes Undertale the best game I have played in easily five or six years. It is a game in which the world is not a chore, but something that begs to be explored. Just to give one tiny, itty bitty example: You get a cell phone early on, and later acquire Papyrus the skeleton's phone number. You can then call Papyrus in almost any room and get a small dialog about where you are and what's going on. This exists only to build the world, and this is just one tiny example. The game has content like this buried everywhere, and following a hunch only to have it pay off with smart dialog or satisfying results.

(More spoilers incoming, vague though they may be. Beware) At the very end of my playthrough, I was instructed to enjoy a walk through the world to chat with my friends before the game proceeded on to its conclusion. I found every single NPC in the game and talked to them. Not because I was obligated to, or because I wanted the shiny trophy that most games use to incentivize you, but because I wanted to see them all again. I fell in love with a world that loved me right back. It makes you want to explore the world, and gives wonderful stories and amazing depth when you take the time to invest in it. This was most realized for me when, at the very end, I had a hunch about something that had changed in the world. On nothing but intuition alone, the game guided me right to the ending I had wanted so much to see, and as I played, the game made it very clear that it was my actions that had led me to the resolution I had wanted. After years of playing games like Mass Effect and Deus Ex where your choices fall by the wayside to let you push a button for one of four endings, I had taken deliberate action and received in kind. My choices had weight; the game validated this, rather than disregarding them. 

I can't honestly say that I got the 'good' or 'true' ending, or whatever it's called. For the first time in playing a game ever, I didn't care. I got the ending exactly as I wanted it, finding resolution where I asked for it. I was told my story, and walked away from it with such satisfaction I'm still kind of in awe of how wonderful the experience all was.

We live in a world of Triple-A, big budget gaming, where more time is focused on meeting a timetable than on the quality of its content. They are to be consumed and forgotten, if only until they resurface with an incremented number at the end. When was the last time a game made you laugh consistently? That made you care about every person it its world? That gives you a world to cherish and explore and reward you for doing so? For me, it had been a very, very long time.

I can proudly say that Undertale has been the most fulfilling, engaging title I have played of the last few years, and I can say without a doubt that this game should not be missed. If you take nothing else away from this, please, just give this game a shot. This is truly a labor of love: a tribute to all things that made us fall in to gaming. Seriously, I'll buy you a copy of the game (Editor's Note: I do not have much money, for the love of God please don't rob me. But the offer is serious. The game is that good.) You, stranger. Whoever you are. You need this. Fall in love with gaming again.

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About Somidnaone of us since 1:54 AM on 11.05.2009